By the time of his death in 2009, New York’s Percy Sutton had long earned his reputation as a pioneer and power broker. Many New Yorkers still remember him as an investor in the famed Apollo Theater and WLIB-AM, New York’s first Black-owned radio station. Others knew him as one of the Gang of Four, a quartet of Black male movers and shakers who left indelible marks on the Empire State. A lawyer and consummate negotiator, Sutton could do heavyweight horse-trading with a smile and a debonair suit.
But Sutton used his skill and experience in a lesser-known way to make history too: In 1966, during his brief time as a member of the New York assembly, he introduced the state’s first bill that would have legalized abortion in cases of rape, incest, or danger to the pregnant woman’s health. At the time, New York’s 80-year-old law prohibited all abortions, except to preserve the life of the pregnant woman. As Sutton himself recounted in the documentaryFrom Danger to Dignity: The Fight for Safe Abortion, an old military buddy “had come back home after World War II, only to have, within the first year of his return, his wife die as a result of a botched abortion. This background demanded that I take some action when I had the opportunity.” Twenty years later, Sutton responded with the bill. Although his proposal was quickly squashed, Sutton, along with local feminists, doctors, sympathetic clergy, and activist attorneys, had paved the way for the 1970 liberalization of New York’s abortion law.